Sunday, December 28, 2008

Interview With the Liar: You’d Be a Crook if You Didn’t Check Out “Frost/Nixon”

Some people say that Richard Nixon was one of the worst presidents ever (I said “one of” Mr. Bush). Perhaps that’s true. He was and still is the only president ever to resign from office, due to the scandals of all scandals. Of course Nixon was way before my time, so I have no real negative or positives feelings towards him. In fact, I don’t know much about him at all, which is why I think I enjoyed “Frost/Nixon” so much and why it’s such a great film. I learned a lot and while I don’t know whether or not I would use this film as the ultimate tool for learning about the 37th president of the United States, it was a fascinating portrait of a man who betrayed his country and hardly got a slap on the wrist. This film, based on the play of the same name, is about TV interviewer David Frost’s attempt to question Nixon about Watergate and his presidency; a presidency that betrayed the American people.

As directed by Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon” first and foremost has the feel of the 1970s. It doesn’t just use catchy songs from the era and bad wigs to give you an impression of the time period, but stylistic choices and everything from costumes to the performances all capture the time well. Of course, I am far removed from that time period so my knowledge of the 70s rests simply in the fact that I’ve seen many films from the 70s. So it’s got the look and feel of the time but is the movie any good? Yes it is! The film uses Watergate as a jumping off point and takes place years later with Nixon (played masterfully by Frank Langella) in seclusion. British TV personality David Frost (the always great Michael Sheen) wants the ultimate challenge of interviewing Nixon and attempting to get some sort of confession out of him, with the goal of airing the interview nationally on American television. He was Oprah before there was even Oprah.

I haven’t seen any of the actual interview footage except for a few clips here and there online after seeing the film. I assume what goes on in the film is nearly word for word since it was aired on national television. So as far as my knowledge goes most of the story is “historically accurate.” Of course, this is really a dramatization. It’s a big glossy Hollywood production that is put together darn well if you ask me. This story is engrossing from start to finish. And it’s sort of amazing in that it’s essentially based on a conversation between two people and yet it’s riveting and emotionally satisfying. And Howard employs a technique in which the various actors are “interviewed” and give short testimonials about what’s going on. It’s a nice touch. There are four sets of interviews between Nixon and Frost and it is fascinating to see how each one progresses and how each man uses mind tricks and their own wit to out do each other. It’s the ultimate showdown and you don’t know who’s going to draw their gun first.

The film is supported by a phenomenal supporting cast. We get Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell who work for Frost as researchers. They have some great funny lines that help break the tension thanks to Peter Morgan’s excellent screenplay (which is based on his own play). Kevin Bacon is great as well as one of Nixon’s military aides. Toby Jones even shows up looking sort of like Mini Me with huge black frames. And “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” star Rebecca Hall appears as Frost’s love interest. Most will be said about Langella’s Oscar caliber turn as Nixon and that is fine and dandy, but I’d like to briefly commend Sheen. He was so great in “The Queen” opposite Helen Mirren who also got all the praise. And now here he is again opposite another masterful veteran performance that just seems unstoppable. Sheen is actually really good at playing a celebrity even though I’m not sure I’d actually call him one. His Frost is almost a politically active James Bond in that he’s up against a seemingly relentless force and yet he can nearly always get what he wants.

“Frost/Nixon” is a great time to be had at the movies. It feels significant and yet it doesn’t forget that it’s a movie and it wants to entertain as well. It’s an Oscar-worthy look at a man who many hated and many loved, and while it’s obvious that Nixon is supposed to be the “bad guy” the filmmakers aren’t afraid to actually make him more than that and actually be a human being. This is great stuff. GRADE: A

Friday, December 26, 2008

Young At Heart: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a Fascinating Piece of Art

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” defines the reasons we go to the movies in the first place. It tells an interesting and original story. It uses exciting cinematic techniques to tell its story. And it’s entertaining through it’s nearly three hour running time. In an age when movies are unnecessarily long (see “Australia” or “There Will Be Blood”) it’s good to know there are ones that are actually necessarily long (see “Titanic” or “Magnolia”). This film I believe works despite its length and there are likely to be people who disagree, but the movie presents us with such a fascinating story that the length never seemed to be bothersome. “Benjamin Button,” based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name, is simply about a man who was born as an old man and ages backwards. Therefore when he’s twelve he appears to be 70 and when he’s 70 he appears to be a young boy. It’s a weird premise that just simply works mostly due to some standout performances, special effects and David Fincher’s assured direction.

The film, like most these days, has a framing device. The story takes place during present day, or more specifically New Orleans circa Hurricane Katrina. An old woman is dying in her hospital bed and her adult daughter is by her side (Julia Ormond). The daughter begins to read a diary written by a man named Benjamin. We begin to see how this man was “born under unusual circumstances.” Benjamin was born in 1918 looking all wrinkly and his father took one look and decided to abandon him. The baby is taken in by Queenie (an outstanding Taraji P. Henson) who runs a sort of old age home. We then get to see how this baby actually begins to look younger as he grows older.

This is achieved with some of the best cinematic wizardly of recent memory. Most of the time we see what appears to be a young boy with Brad Pitt's head made up to look like an old man. I assume it’s equal parts CGI and prosthetic make-up. It’s 100% convincing. I’m not even sure when Brad Pitt actually appears on screen as a full human being, but he’s stupendous anyways. He doesn’t give a showy bravura performance but it’s still affecting and is one of his best performances to date. It’s obvious he could act circles around the other Hollywood heartthrob Tom Cruise any day of the week.

I think what is so amazing about the film besides it’s “Forrest Gump”/”Big Fish”-like story of a simple man whose life was anything but simple, is how easy it is to buy into this premise. It doesn’t nearly seem as far fetched as it could have been in less talented hands (it's screenplay was written by "Forrest Gump" and "Munich" scribe Eric Roth). It’s a technical achievement through and through, but let’s not forget that this is a film brimming with not only great technical achievements but stong themes of love and loss and great performances as well. Pitt, like I said, is great in the title role. You almost feel as if it were made for him. When you finally get to see Benjamin as a young guy you’re immediately drawn to why he is such a celebrity in the first place. The same with Cate Blanchette, as Daisy, who is the love Benjamin pines for throughout the film. She gives her usually majestic performance, but it’s obviously Pitt who has the showier role. But don’t worry, we get to see her with old lady make-up as well.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a movie that you feel confident saying was the reason movie cameras were made for in the first place. It is sweet, and weird, and beautiful and absorbing and touching. It might even bring a tear to your eye. This is the type of fantastical film that I enjoy (it has an unrealistic element, but plays it realistically). You can tell it’s working extra heard to make you believe every moment of what’s happening on screen. It defines cinema in all aspects and should rake up nominations when the Academy announces the nominees in January. Bravo to all involved. GRADE: A

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Nun’s Story: Meryl Streep Inhabits Her Inner Sister in “Doubt”

“Doubt” is the type of movie that I can’t recommend to everyone and for several reasons. If you’re a fan of good acting then I would say see it. If you hate pretentious dialogue that is constantly reflecting the story directly then I would say skip it. If you enjoy top talent having “dialogue matches” in which people fight with looks and gestures and sharply written dialogue I would say see it. If you hate movies that seem small, intimate and “stagy” I would say skip it. And of course, if you are fan of Meryl Streep, you’ve got to see it. It’s obvious that she’s on her way to her 15th acting Oscar nomination with “Doubt” in which she plays a strict nun who confronts a priest when she learns that he may be abusing a Black school boy.

“Doubt” is an actor’s dream. It’s a movie (and I assume the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is as well) that actors would look to when trying to hone their craft. Well I would anyway. I mean just look at its recent SAG nominations. It received 5. It’s pretty astounding considering there are only 5 categories to begin with. Every principal cast member was nominated by their acting peers and it’s obvious that “Doubt” is a tour de force of the art of drama.

As an actual film I think it’s a little less successful. There really isn’t a problem with the story, but I guess how it plays out isn’t nearly as interesting as the trailer would have you believe. The film takes place during the 1960s in a New York borough. Meryl is Sister Aloysius Beauvier who is the principal at a Catholic elementary school. This sister hardly puts the pal in principal. She is stern and intimidating and most of the kids are scared of her. In fact Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) says that “the dragon” is hungry when she scolds a child and drags him away by his ear. Sort of like Helen Mirren managed as Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen,” Meryl here almost makes you feel as if you should stand up when you see her on screen. I was scared of her just as much as her students. Happy-go-lucky Sister James (a perky and perfect Amy Adams) begins to notice Father Flynn’s closeness with one particular student. And in a moment of uncertainty confesses to Sister Aloysius that she believes Father Flynn has been hurting little Donald. We don’t see anything, so we, like her, are very unsure. But she makes the accusation anyways. And now it’s up to Meryl and her habit to out-act Hoffman in the showdowns of showdowns. Of course that’s what’s supposed to happen.

If anything, the final “confrontation” isn’t as intense as you’re lead to believe it may be. Meryl almost crosses the line into overacting for a few seconds, but it won’t cost her a nomination. A real great performance is that of Viola Davis, who plays Donald’s mother. Her one scene is affecting and powerful. She’s also a sure thing for Supporting Actress.

“Doubt” which was directed and adapted by the original playwright John Patrick Shanley, is by no means a horrible movie. It actually features some great framing and compositions by DP Roger ‘Fargo’ Deakins. It has style to spare and features authentic production values. See it to observe some great acting but if you’ve already seen the play on which it’s based then I doubt you’ll find anything new in the film version. GRADE: B

Friday, December 12, 2008

Got “Milk:” Sean Penn Astounds as a Politician with a Purpose

Sean Penn won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 2004 for "Mystic River." I think he should clear off some space on his mantel because his Oscar is about to get a friend. Okay so maybe it’s not exactly written in the stars or anything, but Sean Penn is so amazing in “Milk” that it’s worth seeing the film just to see him act his pants off. Even if you’re a right wing Republican who hates the though of gay people actually having rights you might actually see why people call Sean Penn one of the greatest American actors working today. But enough about Mr. Penn (who by the way is a terrific director as well, go watch “Into the Wild” for proof), is Gus Van Sant’s bio pic about slain politician/gay rights activist Harvey Milk any good? Of course.

With “Brokeback Mountain” having paved the way for mainstream audiences afraid to see, gasp, homosexuality portrayed realistically on screen, “Milk” can be described as a film that even people with an open mind will be able to enjoy. While I would describe Milk as a much more liberal leaning film than “Brokeback” anyone who has any sort of passion (whether it be any sort of political activism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, civil rights activism, women’s rights activism etc) will be able to relate with what goes on in the film. Harvey Milk was just an ordinary guy who happened to extraordinary things. As a gay man he didn’t want to be discriminated against (and hated the violence committed against gays) so when the politicians in San Francisco didn’t satisfy him he took matters into his own hands and ran for office. After a few failed attempts at winning (although he gained more votes with each progressive election) he finally won a seat as City Supervisor.

Milk is surrounded by a merry gang of fellow friends and activists all supporting his cause and all giving tremendous performances on top of it. James Franco is great as Milks younger boyfriend. It’s funny how the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated him for “Pineapple Express” and not this film. Of course he doesn’t have as showy a role as Emile Hirsch who could easily win an Oscar nomination come January. After all, he was horrendously shunned by the Academy last year for “Into the Wild.” Josh Brolin also amazes in an Oscar worthy performance as Dan White a fellow Supervisor who has many disagreements with Harvey Milk which leads to a horrible tragedy.

Van Sant who lately has directed a string of strange art house flicks (“Paranoid Park,” “Last Days,” “Elephant”), is more well known for his breakout success “Good Will Hunting.” “Milk” could easily win him his second Oscar nomination, although it will be interesting to see how the mostly conservative Academy will respond to this liberal minded flick. But conservative or liberal, any film lover can appreciate the superb directing style throughout “Milk.” Van Sant uses plenty of archival footage which gives the film a grittier documentary feel. It makes the film feel more legitimate and even intimate. The style is simple but effective and he mostly lets the actors do what they do best. Even writer Dustin Lance Black finds a great stride in pretending us a back and forth narrative with Milk speaking into a recording device just weeks before his assassination. This is a device that I felt worked here rather well, but didn’t really work for “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Of course, with Milk we know of the inevitable out come of the story. Harvey Milk was shot to death along with the mayor of San Francisco by Dan White. There doesn’t really seem to be a specific reason for this hateful crime except that White must have felt personally threatened (and uncomfortable with Milk’s successes). The film makes no real conclusions but would rather present the events as they unfold (and although this is a story from years past, couldn’t more be relative today). It would have been nice for the film to go on so we could see how Milk’s role left an impact on society, but alas the film ends when Milk’s life does. But what we’re left with is the effect one person can have on hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. The film still belongs to Penn who disappears into the role and creates a quirky and adoring character that we grow to know and love. “Milk” provides the reasons why we go to the movies in the first place. GRADE: A-

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Quiz Show: “Slumdog Millionaire” Isn’t Quite the Winner I Was Hoping For

The end of “28 Days Later” was sort of disappointing. The end of "The Beach" was a little too crazy if you ask me. And the ending of “Sunshine” was just a little too ridiculous. Danny Boyle is a filmmaker who knows who to make fascinating and original films but somehow gets tripped up when it comes to the final act of his movies. However, that mostly changes with “Slumdog Millionaire,” his critical darling that might just bring him closer to Oscar gold. I was so excited to see “Slumdog Millionaire” after reading so many raves about how amazing it was, it wasn’t really surprising to me when I realized I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much. The film is alright and the ending is better, but on the whole, this is a film that left me so ambivalent that I almost felt as if I had been punk’d. I mean I was hoping this would be my favorite film of the year and right now it’d be lucky if it even cracked my Top 20.

Like I said, the ending of “Slumdog Millioniaire,” like you’ve probably read, makes the film worth seeing. Everything comes together and without giving too much away, will make you feel differently than you had in the film’s previous hour and a half. If I can be perfectly honest, there were some segments of the film in which I had to fight to keep my eyes open. Perhaps it was my long weekend in Cape Cod that did me in, but while the film has an electric energy which is obvious due to its kinetic cinematography and fast editing (and interesting musical score as well), it has a surprisingly slow pace about it. Perhaps it’s the fact that the film’s story is set up as a bunch of flashbacks which seems nearly grind the film’s present story to a grinding halt. It’s sort of like Forrest Gump. Adult forest flashes back to his life and how it affected people and yet we’re not like, go back to the present so we can see Forrest just sitting there on the bench. The story in the present wasn’t what was interesting. It was his past that was. Here we get the opposite. It’s the story in the present that is interesting. Although who wouldn’t jump in human feces to meet their favorite movie star?

What I mean is the film is about Jamal (Dev Patel) who is a poor Indian boy growing up in Mumbai. Through a bunch of trials and tribulations including surviving mob attacks and enough corruption to make the governor of Illinois look like Gandhi, Jamal ends up on the popular Hindi version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” But how could a lowly young lad from the slums of Mumbai ever dream of winning big? Well it’s because every since question he is asked he has learned throughout his hard life. We see the greasy host ask him a question and then we flash back to some tough time in Jamal’s childhood where learned the answer. And then we flash forward to the present where he receives a new question. Even the host can’t believe this sewer rat is doing so well that he feels the need to feed him an incorrect answer just so that he could lose.

Of course this isn’t a movie about competing on a game show (which is I guess, what I thought it was) but rather a fairy tale about true love. Yada yada yada. Jamal and his obnoxious brother Salim meets Latika when they are young and the three of them become a young set of the Three Musketeers. One for all and all for one. That is until Latika is capture by bad guys and Jamal just may never see her again. That is until he gets the chance to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but like all sappy love stories. He did it for her and not for the money.

Maybe it’s my lack of knowledge of anything Indian, but I found the story line to be confusing at points. It didn’t help that Jamal and the other young characters are played by 3 different actors throughout the film or that with all the fast paced editing, sometimes the story just seemed more jumbled than actually romantic. This is what I don’t get: throughout the whole film we’re treated to dark images and corruption and gang members and violence and even torture. For the most part it feels like Babel more than Cinderella. And yet, there’s a freakin’ Bollywood dance number during the end credits. Does Mr. Boyle even know what kind of movie he just made? (Relax. I enjoyed the dance sequence, but come on, it seriously belongs in a totally different film)

Remember I said the ending of the film almost redeemed itself for me? That is pretty much true in that we finally get to the suspense of will he win the money or not and the film stops flashing back. But alas it was not all wonderful. There was a point where I think I was supposed to cry, and yet I showed no emotion. In fact I didn’t really know how to feel throughout the whole thing. If this is supposed to be a romantic love story, I think I missed the boat. If you had your hopes up for this movie I’m not recommending that you don’t see it. In fact I think you should see it, because it’s really not terrible in any way. In fact I’m more mad at myself for not enjoying than I am at the actual movie. I’m sure the film will continue to rack up awards. I just won’t be handing any out. Sorry Jamal. GRADE: C+